Canada is a nation of resources.
We dig them, pump them, cut them, crush them, grow them and export them. They are a huge part of the economy and a massive wealth generator.
And yet the country's most valuable resource of all – water – is the least discussed and most misunderstood. Even acknowledging water's potential economic value has become taboo for politicians and policy-makers.
The federal Liberals are now trying to shame NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair for suggesting, back in 2004, when he was Quebec's environment minister, that the province should consider exporting some of its water.
"[If] I can export, and I'm capable of ensuring the sustainability of the resource, and it could bring something to the region, why wouldn't I do it?" Mr. Mulcair told Quebec's National Assembly. "This is a renewable natural resource, unlike a mine. … If we manage it properly, if we take care of it as we should, why can't we even talk about it?"
Mr. Mulcair says he recanted those views after entering federal politics in 2007, and now opposes exports.
The notion of exporting water is a political no-go zone. Ottawa and most provinces have banned bulk exports. Most Canadians oppose the idea. And selling it to the most obvious customer – the United States – is largely prohibited under various trade deals and treaties. Even absent those hurdles, piping or shipping vast quantities of water isn't economically feasible.
And yet Canadians would be wise to prepare for the day when a thirsty and desperate world wants something that we have in abundance.
It's time for the country to explore the issue, accurately quantify and measure the water resources we have, and then determine how much can be withdrawn from various waterways without harming the environment. There should be strict rules governing its use, inside the country or for export. And water should be priced to better reflect its true value.
Ottawa and the provinces are badly behind on all these issues. In some regions, municipal water isn't even metered.
Global warming will force the debate on Canadians, whether they like it or not. Many parts of North America are plagued by drought, shrinking reservoirs and depleted groundwater.
Canada already exports massive quantities of water. Water is embedded in various agricultural and industrial products we sell to the world. It's used by power plants, factories, farms and homes in shared waters along the U.S. border, including the Great Lakes.
Most of this water is returned to the lakes, but not all. Roughly 2.3 billion gallons a day is consumed and never comes back. The largest single diversion of water occurs in Chicago, where water is regularly pumped from Lake Michigan at a rate of up to 3,200 cubic feet a second and eventually dumped into the Chicago River, which flows southward to the Mississippi, never to return.
A recent policy paper published by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy provocatively suggested Canada "commoditize" its water resources.
"Canada should arguably treat water the same way it treats oil or gold – a valuable commodity on the international market with benefits from exportation outweighing the costs of depletion," argued author Rhett Larson, an associate law professor and environmental law expert at Arizona State University. "What is the difference between the water embedded in Canada's industrial and agricultural exports and raw water exported in bulk tankers or pipelines? Either way, enormous quantities of water are being exported from Canada."
Canada can both profit from its water, and legally protect itself from overexploitation by severely limiting conditions under which water could ever be exported, according to Prof. Larson. "Allowing the world to access Canada's vast water supplies in a way that is sustainable, responsible and even profitable for Canada may be part of solving the global water crisis," he said.
Here's the quandary for Canada. Most provinces currently allow widespread bulk withdrawals of fresh water for industrial use, without tolls or adequate conservation measures in place to protect waterways. Given the near absence of limits on withdrawals inside the country, Canada's trading partners could make the case that banning exports is an illegal trade barrier because foreign buyers are treated differently.
That might leave Canada exposed to a trade challenge under World Trade Organization rules, and eventually unrestricted bulk exports, on someone else's terms.
Maybe it's time to lift the cone of silence.